o Muslims the Koran is the very word of God, who spoke
through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad: "This book is not to be
doubted," the Koran declares unequivocally at its beginning.
Scholars and writers in Islamic countries who have ignored that
warning have sometimes found themselves the target of death threats
and violence, sending a chill through universities around the world.
Yet despite the fear, a handful of experts have been quietly
investigating the origins of the Koran, offering radically new
theories about the text's meaning and the rise of Islam.
Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in
Germany, argues that the Koran has been misread and mistranslated
for centuries. His work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran,
maintains that parts of Islam's holy book are derived from
pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by
later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran
commonly read today.
So, for example, the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good
Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise are in reality "white
raisins" of crystal clarity rather than fair maidens.
Christoph Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his scholarly
tome ""The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran" had trouble finding a
publisher, although it is considered a major new work by several
leading scholars in the field. Verlag Das Arabische Buch in Berlin
ultimately published the book.
The caution is not surprising. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses"
received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian
novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was
thought to be irreligious. And when the Arab scholar Suliman Bashear
argued that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than
emerging fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, he was injured
after being thrown from a second- story window by his students at
the University of Nablus in the West Bank. Even many broad-minded
liberal Muslims become upset when the historical veracity and
authenticity of the Koran is questioned.
The reverberations have affected non-Muslim scholars in Western
countries. "Between fear and political correctness, it's not
possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam,"
said one scholar at an American university who asked not to be
named, referring to the threatened violence as well as the
widespread reluctance on United States college campuses to criticize
While scriptural interpretation may seem like a remote and
innocuous activity, close textual study of Jewish and Christian
scripture played no small role in loosening the Church's domination
on the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, and paving the way
for unfettered secular thought. "The Muslims have the benefit of
hindsight of the European experience, and they know very well that
once you start questioning the holy scriptures, you don't know where
it will stop," the scholar explained.
The touchiness about questioning the Koran predates the latest
rise of Islamic militancy. As long ago as 1977, John Wansbrough of
the School of Oriental and African Studies in London wrote that
subjecting the Koran to "analysis by the instruments and techniques
of biblical criticism is virtually unknown."
Mr. Wansbrough insisted that the text of the Koran appeared to be
a composite of different voices or texts compiled over dozens if not
hundreds of years. After all, scholars agree that there is no
evidence of the Koran until 691 — 59 years after Muhammad's death —
when the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was built, carrying
several Koranic inscriptions.
These inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of the
Koran that has been handed down through the centuries, suggesting,
scholars say, that the Koran may have still been evolving in the
last decade of the seventh century. Moreover, much of what we know
as Islam — the lives and sayings of the Prophet — is based on texts
from between 130 and 300 years after Muhammad's death.
In 1977 two other scholars from the School for Oriental and
African Studies at London University — Patricia Crone (a professor
of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) and
Michael Cook (a professor of Near Eastern history at Princeton
University) — suggested a radically new approach in their book
"Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World."
Since there are no Arabic chronicles from the first century of
Islam, the two looked at several non-Muslim, seventh-century
accounts that suggested Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of
a new religion but as a preacher in the Old Testament tradition,
hailing the coming of a Messiah. Many of the early documents refer
to the followers of Muhammad as "hagarenes," and the "tribe of
Ishmael," in other words as descendants of Hagar, the servant girl
that the Jewish patriarch Abraham used to father his son
In its earliest form, Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook argued, the
followers of Muhammad may have seen themselves as retaking their
place in the Holy Land alongside their Jewish cousins. (And many
Jews appear to have welcomed the Arabs as liberators when they
entered Jerusalem in 638.)
The idea that Jewish messianism animated the early followers of
the Prophet is not widely accepted in the field, but "Hagarism" is
credited with opening up the field. "Crone and Cook came up with
some very interesting revisionist ideas," says Fred M. Donner of the
University of Chicago and author of the recent book "Narratives of
Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing." "I
think in trying to reconstruct what happened, they went off the deep
end, but they were asking the right questions."
The revisionist school of early Islam has quietly picked up
momentum in the last few years as historians began to apply rational
standards of proof to this material.
Mr. Cook and Ms. Crone have revised some of their early
hypotheses while sticking to others. "We were certainly wrong about
quite a lot of things," Ms. Crone said. "But I stick to the basic
point we made: that Islamic history did not arise as the classic
tradition says it does."